The Best Art At Burning Man 2014

September 13, 2014

Every year — once, and all over again — Burning Man re-teaches me how not to be cynical.

Filigree balls, Burning Man 2014
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It’s easy to hate Burning Man. The dust is poisonous, the trip is a giant expensive hassle, and we Burners can be remarkably irritating (especially when evangelical). There are class issues, and other issues too.

I considered giving you a “How To Write About Burning Man” article, which would explain how to get people to click on your website using headlines like:

• “How Does Burning Man Reflect [Insert Inflammatory San Francisco Stereotype]?”

• “Are Burners [Stereotype A] or [Stereotype B]?”

• “Are Burners Techies or Survivalists?”

• “Are Burners Libertarians or Communists?”

• “Are Burners Visionary Artists or Useless, Dissolute Addicts?”

• “Burning Man: Inside The Desert Debauchery That Is A Clear Sign of America’s Moral Downfall”

These questions are crucial to our time. They must be important, because every time I log into Facebook, I cannot escape similar articles posted by 300 of my friends — and that’s how you know a topic is important, right?

But after attending the Burn this year for my fourth time, I realized that all I want to do is tell you about my favorite art piece.

I found it in the middle of the night on Saturday. My companion and I were wandering across the desert on foot. We had seen many wonders:

• We were coming from three exquisite, delicate, light-filled geometric sculptures that threw filigree shadows across the sand.

• Before that, we visited a vast and extraordinary steel pigeon skeleton that held a riding seat and bicycle pedals in its ribcage. People could sit in the seat and control the metallic wings.

• Later that night, we would discover a wooden outpost from “two years in the future” — a fanciful monument to the apocalypse, built and then abandoned by desperate survivors in 2016.

But none of these things, in the end, were my favorite piece of art.

Metal riding pigeon, Burning Man 2014
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We were not tired, but we were hungry, and we didn’t want to make the half-hour journey back to camp just to eat. Fortunately, we had prepared for our art trek by packing several meals; now we hoped to find a place to sit down.

Ahead of us, we spotted a tiny white building whose wall sported the words: “Come inside!” (I later discovered that it’s called “Dreambox 3.0,” by Teddy Saunders.) Within, we discovered a narrow entranceway with black walls, painted with star patterns and neon quotations about dreams. It was what you’d expect: bits of poems that many Americans read in grade school, like Langston Hughes’ “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

We squeezed through to the next space: a fluorescent-lit room, just big enough for a stool, with white walls covered in Sharpie writing. I put my backpack down on the stool and investigated the field of Sharpie, finding stuff like “I dream of love for everyone!” — the sort of thing people get sarcastic about when discussing Burning Man.

There was also a computer screen in front of the stool. Visitors could use it to read an extensive Terms and Conditions and then record yourself speaking about your life’s dream. My friend and I poked at it for a while. The screen had suffered during its week of toxic dust, and we made typical techie jokes about user interface design. Then we settled in to eat quick snacks.

A few people came by. One bore a ready-to-use Sharpie, for which we applauded her. Most visitors glanced around, shrugged, and left. In the lulls, my friend and I began to imagine a sculpture to celebrate challenging user interfaces, and we were laughing when a new couple joined us. The man was built like a fireplug, covered in tattoos; his fireman’s helmet was real, not a costume. The woman was blonde, makeup-free, wearing relatively “real world” clothes and an unfashionable paper surgical mask to filter the dust. I asked where they were from, and they said they’d driven in from Baltimore.

They looked around quietly. I smiled, and I said that the computer was a bit hard to use. I expected a laugh, but they didn’t laugh. After a moment, the man asked politely, “Are you going to try it?”

I shook my head. “Well, may I sit down, then?” he said.

With alacrity, I scrunched myself into a corner with my backpack, stifling my giggles as he doggedly navigated the checkboxes for the Dreambox’s Terms and Conditions. Finally he made it to a screen that offered him 30 seconds to describe his dream, and posed clarifying questions. I’ll have to tell you what he said from memory, because I didn’t have the presence of mind to write it down.

With care, the man squarely faced the screen, and he said something like this:
“I dream of finding a small community and making a home there, where people love each other. And what making a home looks like to me is, I want to be a role model and a leader, and I want to build a safe space for…”

Here, he hesitated for a moment.

“… Dream-making,” he concluded.

He took the hand of his companion, and she sat down beside him. Here’s what I remember: “I want to find my purpose in life, and I want to enjoy it. I want to live somewhere nice with people I love.” She added shyly, “Maybe I’ll get to travel the world… that sounds like fun.”

Then they left.

Their sincerity had taken my breath away.

I called after them: “Thank you guys so much for being here! You’re awesome!” and found myself afraid that my tone came across as ironic. I felt terribly self-conscious of the cynicism that had blinded me to the potential of this piece.

I looked across at my companion. “I’m almost crying,” I said, and he nodded. I looked at the screen and wondered if I will ever make anything that could encourage someone to so clearly, authentically, and bravely imagine their life’s dream.

And then: Upon my return, I found out that the DreamBox is a promotional project for a startup that is currently trying to raise funding in the real world. So is this:

• A sad example of cynical advertising at an event that is explicitly Not About Branding?

• Or a lovely example of artists finding new ways to support their art?

Maybe it’s best viewed as a clever social comment. But I still think it’s beautiful.

3 responses to The Best Art At Burning Man 2014

  1. I wish I had a good word for experiences that are solely about curation, because that’s what this is. There’s a critical craftsmanship element in creating the right environment, interface, and prompt to draw out (and in this case capture) meaningful experiences from people. But that’s not what moved you. You were moved by two strangers’ choice to be open and earnest.

    The Dreambox provided a stimulus and a framework, but not the content. That doesn’t invalidate it as an experience–I think curated aggregation services like Postsecret or Beautiful Agony are great. But for these experiences I see the originator as a curator or director. The audience is the artist.

    As for the investment-seeking bit, I have mixed feelings. At Burning Man, you should be able to assume that your participation is a gift that will not be bought and sold. It is, after all, supposed to be a gift economy. With that baseline, the designer has a responsibility to be transparent about how that content is used. That couple submitted their experience as a gift. If they are not informed and consenting to its eventual monetization, that’s exploitive.

  2. Hello beauty, I read your article and have developed a large, heartfelt smile. It made me proud to read honesty and your reality of an experience I am so proud to be apart of. To answer your question that formed after the article form Burners.me. The correct information is that we are an art project that has grown and now with the hopes of sharing these dreams, sparking people to make them happen and holding them accountable, The dreammakers built the website dreamus.com. It is a VERY new site along with a programmer who has worked extremely hard to create something innovative with his coding, with the full time he has invested he must sustain himself as well. With the donation button available (it is a decision the dream holder can have up/down), there is a transferring that takes place when running a site with a donation button. Like any other site that has it, there is a transfer fee (3%). Paypal for example takes a certain percentage each time you send money. The terms for donations on our site says 5% will go to the site meaning 3% is through transfer and 2% is invested back to the site for maintenance. Teddy Saunders, the creator has invested every dime he has made into this project over the past 3 years. There is no fee to sign up, no one is expected to give any money and while we are sorting with burning man what the best options for posting dreams/having no BM dreams posted with a donation button is our first and foremost. We are burners, dreamers and artists. This is a project that is birthed from the heart. I hope this brings some clarity. Ps. My dream is on the site, a dream that with dreamus will happen. :) Thank you for sharing your talent of voice.

  3. Lydia Laurenson September 17, 2014 at 17:15

    Thanks for the comments Albert & Mandyjane. I think I have to agree that it’s a bit exploitative because of the gift economy context. The couple didn’t know that they would be an advertisement, especially given that they were at an event that explicitly rejects branding. (If potential ads were mentioned in the Terms and Conditions, well… I think it’s reasonable to assume that most people didn’t read the TOC properly, given that they were at Burning Man.)

    Still, I do like the idea of the dream-recording site, and I give my best wishes to the creators.